Lincoln String Quartet at Music Institute of Chicago Review-Never Satisfied

The Lincoln quartet. From top: Lei Hou, Qing Hou, Lawrence Neuman, and Stephen Balderston

A recital given at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston by the Lincoln String Quartet, an ensemble composed of current and former members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, featured three prominent quartets to which this accomplished group gave exacting and focused interpretations. The first piece on the program was one of the earliest works in the catalog of Haydn, the String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 33, No 2, also known as “The Joke” for its multiple false endings. The quartet is a refined yet simple piece from the Classical period; it had a certain superficial beauty in its melody, but the ensemble played it with great refinement and polish. Haydn's quartet served as a light introduction to two more substantial pieces, the first of which was the String Quartet in E Minor, “My Life”, by Bederich Smetana, the great nationalist Czech composer. The program was rounded out by one of Beethoven's most famous string quartets, the C Major Quartet, Op. 59 No 3, “Rasumovsky”. The Smetana quartet begins with a stunning movement, which, to me, seemed far ahead of its time, more in line with relatively contemporary compositions. It was somewhat discordant and characterized by a pendulum-like rhythm from the violins. I don't know whether this impression was erroneous or not, but it's a haunting piece that seemed to belong in a later era. The quartet in its later movements was closer in spirit to the Haydn piece, that is to say one from the Classical era, and then similar to pieces contemporary to Smetana's own era; the thought entered my mind that Smetana was perhaps was so startled by what he'd produced in the first movement that he pulled back and became more conservative as a reaction to producing something so radically unique. As a whole, the piece was quite demanding, but despite the furious effort required, the musicians seemed well up to the challenge. The piece de resistance, not surprisingly, was the Rasumovsky, which has a sort of “false” beginning, starting with an andante (fairly slow) portion before transitioning in the same movement, to a pace of Allegro vivace (fast and lively). The second half of the quartet is joined together, without a break, much in the way the final two movement's of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony are joined. The stately minuet dance gives way to an intense, fast-paced finale, which provided an occasion for the quartet to rise to even greater heights, a challenge which they met and conquered.

It should be expected that a group consisting of members of the Chicago Symphony, in this case violinists Lei Hou and Qing Hou (sisters, as well), violist Lawrence Neuman, and cellist Stephen Balderston (actually a former CSO member, now a faculty member at DePaul University's School of Music), would play superlatively, but if their performance shed any special insights into the string quartet repertoire for me, it was that though these pieces have been performed countless times over the years, the challenge in performing them for seasoned veterans is to test the range of one's playing skills by performing a wide range of pieces that seem to encompass an equally diverse, even disparate, range of music. From the simple elegance of Haydn, to the seemingly contradictory impulses contained in the Smetana quartet, to the brilliance and intensity required by the transcendent music of Beethoven, the Lincoln Quartet demonstrated that this music not only endures for the audience's enjoyment, but it helps to sustain the musicians as well by challenging them to interpret it well.

Photo: Courtesy of MIC


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